This is a creole cake whose history is the history of the famous New Orleans carnivals celebrated in song and stories. The “King’s Cake, ” or Gateau de Roi, is inseparably connected with the origin of our now world-famed carnival balls. In fact, they owe their origin to the old Creole custom of choosing a king and queen on King’s Day, or Twelfth Night. In old Creole New Orleans, after the inauguration of the Spanish domination and the amalgamation of the French settlers and the Spanish into that peculiarly chivalrous and romantic race, the Louisiana Creole, the French prettily adapted many of the customs of their Spanish relatives and vice versa. Among these was the traditional Spanish celebration of King’s Day, Le Jour des Rois, as the Creoles always term the day. King’s Day falls on January 6, or the twelfth day after Christmas, and commemorates the visit of three Wise Men of the East to the lowly Bethlehem manger. This day is even in our time still the Spanish Christmas, when gifts are presented in commemoration of the King’s gifts. With the Creoles it became Le Petit Noel, or Little Christmas, and, adopting the Spanish custom, there were always grand balls on Twelfth Night;, a king and a queen were chosen, and there were constant rounds of festivities, night after night, till the dawn of Ash Wednesday. From January 6, or King’s Day, to Mardi Gras Day became the accepted Carnival season. Each week a new king and queen were chosen, and no royal rulers ever reigned more happily than did these kings and queens of a week.
The method of first choosing the king was by cutting the “King’s Cake.” This famous Gateau de Roi was made of Brioche Batter. It was an immense Cake, shaped round like a great ring, and decorated with bonbons, dragees, caramels etc. When Twelfth Night arrived there was always a flutter in old Creole New Orleans. Generally some grand mansion was chosen for the first ball, and as the evening progressed, when the clock struck twelve, the guests were all invited to be seated around the spacious dining room, where the “King’s Cake” was brought in. Now, hidden away somewhere in this Cake was a bean, or often as not a magnificent jeweled ring. The Cake was cut into as many slices as there were guests, the smiling cavaliers and the lovely Creole maidens ranged around, each of the latter cherishing the wistful hope that she might find the bean, each of the former hoping likewise that he might have the pleasure of choosing as his queen some lovely girl who held his heart. The Cake, after being cut, was covered with a large linen napkin, so that no one might have the opportunity of seeing if the dainty morsel had been cut near the ring or bean, for often the knife went very, very near, and the dexterous manipulator, with a smile, had to remove it an inch further from the mark. But it was generally so imbedded in the Cake that it was impossible to detect the least trace. Champagne was passed with the King’s Cake, for was it not a royal dish? Suddenly there would be a little flutter. Some one had found the ring or bean, and all gathered around to congratulate the fortunate finder. If a man, he was hailed as the first king of the season, and so, if it were a lady, she was saluted as the queen. If the finder of the bean were a lady, she simply chose her king by presenting him with a bouquet of violets, which was always provided with the Cake. If a gentleman found the ring or bean, the uncrowned king would hold it up, and announce that the lady with whom he would make the round of the parlor or le tour du salon would be his queen. Then he would take his stand near the mantel, the music would strike up, and the beautiful promenade around the room would begin, the gentlemen gracefully offering their arms to the ladies, the latter laughingly complying with the old custom of passing before the king while he chose his queen. No doubt there was much secret vexation among those bonny girls as they passed on and on, the king seemingly unable to make a choice. Suddenly he advanced, and, taking the flower from the lapel of his coat, he presented it to the lady, and, if it happened to be a ring in the cake, often as not it was a magnificent diamond, too, that he presented to her. Then offering his arm, he led the promenade, making, as he said, le tour du salon with her, and then pausing beneath the chandeliers, he would raise his hand, the music would cease, and the king would proclaim: Mes sujets, voici votre reine! Recevez ses commandements! Then followed an ovation of smiles, congratulations and homage, as though she were indeed a queen succeeding to her born rights. And the honors of that night clung to her ever after, amid sunshine and clouds in the old French Quarter.
The prettiest old-time courtesies were connected with the round of balls that followed. These balls were always given at the home of the queen. The king, whether he found the bean or was simply chosen by the lady who had found it, was expected to bear the entire expense of the ball of which he was king, and to provide the next King’s Cake. He was also expected, before the end of the week, to make his queen some beautiful jeweled gift. These gifts of jewels from the king were the only ones that the Creole mother ever allowed her daughters to accept from any gentleman. In this custom of presenting the queen of the week with jewels may be distinctly traced the present custom of our Carnival kings in presenting the queens with jewels.
And so, week after week, the festivities continued; a King’s Cake was cut, a new king and queen chosen, and this continued till the grand culminating ball of Mardi Gras night.
A pretty superstition was also connected with the King’s Cake. The lucky finder of the pecan, or bean, or ring, which was hidden within was henceforth to be favored by fortune. The queen cut the bean in two, and gave half of it to her king, and so, if a gentleman found it. The lucky bean was faithfully preserved as a talisman, and in many an old Creole family to-day there is carefully preserved a little shriveled amulet which was found in the Gateau de Roi on Twelfth Night.
To make the Cake, take a pound and a half of the above-mentioned quality of flour, and put it in a wooden bread trough. Make a hole in the center of the flour, and put in a half ounce of yeast, dissolved in a little warm water. Add milk or tepid water to make the dough, using milk if you want it to be very rich and delicate, and water if you have not the milk. Knead and mix the flour with one hand, while adding the milk or water with the other. Make a dough that is neither too stiff or too soft, and when perfectly smooth set the dough to rise in a moderately warm place, covering with a cloth. Remember that if you use milk to make the dough it must be scalded, that is, must be heated to the boiling point, and then allowed to grow tepid. Let the dough rise for five or six hours, and, when increased to twice its bulk, take it and add the reserved half pound of flour, into which you will have sifted the salt. Add six eggs, beaten very light with the sugar and butter, and mix all well together, kneading lightly with your hands, and adding more eggs if the dough is a little stiff. Then knead the dough by turning it over on itself three times, and set to rise again for an hour or three-quarters of an hour. Cover with a cloth. At the end of this time take it up and work again lightly, and then form into a great ring, leaving of course, a hole in the center. Pat gently and flatten a little. Have ready a baking pan, with a buttered sheet of paper in it, and set the central roll in the middle. Cover the pan with a clean, stiff cloth, and set the Cake to rise for an hour longer. When well risen, set in an oven a few degrees cooler than that used for baking bread; let bake for an hour and a half; if medium, one hour, and if very small, a half hour. Glace the Brioche lightly with a beaten egg, spread lightly over the top before placing in the oven. Decorate with dragees, caramels, etc.